A cargo ship entered the atmosphere of Nimbus III. Its captain, a surly Andorian who had spent several decades in exile from his people and naturally blamed all Vulcans for it, and not at all his poor decisions and worse former business associates, barked at his passenger, a human, sarcastically proclaiming that they had arrived at his destination, the so-called “Planet of Galactic Peace,” and would he kindly leave the ship at his earliest convenience? The man was all too happy to oblige, although he remained apprehensive about his destination, his goal, and if truth be told, life in general.
He was greeted, if that’s the correct word, by a crowd of wary faces. As the cargo ship blasted off again, the man thought he could detect sadness in those faces, too. He’d heard nothing good about Nimbus III, and now he imagined that these were people who very much wished they were leaving it aboard that rare visitor. He wondered how long it would take for him to join them in that regard. First, however, was the mission.
He thought about asking for directions, but none of the faces looked friendly, and this was the kind of world that had only one city, one habitable quarter, one destination, a cruel mockery of the fact that no one had considered the whole world such a thing since its unlikely beginnings: Paradise City. He walked on in silence.
The closer he got the louder it became, and in that he was comforted, beginning for the first time to allow himself to believe he might get this over with quickly. The loudest noises came from what looked like a saloon of some kind, a den of vice. He had yet to see any Romulans, much less Klingons, just aliens of every variety. Strangely, not as many humans as he would have expected.
The man stepped into the establishment, cautiously, expecting ambushes from every corner. Ambient music played in the background, and a feline woman danced along to it, suggestively, apparently employed there, a stripper perhaps. Not that the man was interested. He was here to see a saint.
He walked over to the bar and ordered a drink. Here they had the real stuff, as was clear enough. There was a drunk seated next to him, slovenly dressed, with several days of scruff on his chin, and he was smoking, mumbling into a glass of something blue, probably his regrets for a wasted life.
“I wouldn’t accept that,” the drunk muttered, not even bothering to look up as the man accepted his mug.
“Why? Is it poisoned? Wouldn’t make for very good hospitality, or good business.”
“It isn’t that,” the drunk said, slurring his words. “It’s just not…very good.”
“Thanks for the advice,” the man said, prepared to ignore it.
“I’ve sampled everything our fine bartender has to offer,” the drunk continued, ignoring the man’s attempts to dismiss him. “Believe me when I say, there is some of it so bad as to make your toes curl. Not in a good way.”
Inexplicably, the drunk proceeded to order the very thing he’d been warning the man against. “Cheers,” he said, clinking their glasses together and downing it in a single gulp.
“Vile,” he once again concluded. The man was completely mystified now, and he still hadn’t touched his own drink.
“I’m St. John Talbot,” the drunk said, offering a grimy hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Seth,” the man said, so completely at a loss that he took Talbot’s hand and shook it. “My name is Seth. Just Seth. I’m here to find someone who calls himself Driver. He’s my brother. He’s come here to kill a Klingon named Korrd. Revenge.”
“Then we’re going to have a problem,” said Talbot. “Korrd is part of the governing council here on Nimbus III. He’s my colleague. I’m afraid I can’t let your brother do that.”
“Pardon me for saying so,” said Seth, “but you hardly look responsible enough to be an administrator.”
“You should see Korrd,” said Talbot.
They walked out of the establishment together, Talbot leaning heavily on Seth for support. The erstwhile saint had enjoyed several more beverages in the meantime. Seth had sipped on his one drink, after finding it as terrible as Talbot had suggested. He’d never had a taste for alcohol, and would never have come to a world like Nimbus III had there not been some compelling reason. Until today he would have considered himself much more like how he had previously imagined Talbot, until he met the man. At least Seth still had other heroes, like Zephram Cochrane, who couldn’t possibly let him down so thoroughly; Cochrane, the great man who had ushered humanity into the community of the stars, once so full of hope, until mankind had actually met some of these vaunted alien cultures so grandly suggested by the Vulcans. Seth had never met a Vulcan. After a century of close contact, very few humans had. He knew vaguely of a Vulcan serving in Starfleet, someone whose name he felt he should have known. A doctor, perhaps?
The truth was, Seth cared very little for the affairs of others. He preferred a solitary life. His brother was exactly the opposite, and that was the short version of why he was here now, except for the matter of the Klingons. Everyone knew about the Klingons. They were constantly in the news. Seth grew up learning more about Klingons in the classroom than Vulcans, as if history had become consumed with them, and the endless threat of war they seemed to provoke so effortlessly. There hadn’t been a war on Earth in centuries, and the last attack on it had come from a species called the Xindi, but no one worried about the Xindi these days, only Klingons. It was impossible to escape them. Then one day, the day Seth had dreaded all his life, he found himself drawn into the affair.
Seth’s mother served in Starfleet. He saw her for a relative few weeks out of the year, and this was a pattern that had become so regular it seemed perfectly normal. She served aboard a starship. He couldn’t remember now which one. As far as he was concerned, they were all the same, filled with nameless officers, except his mother. She was a security officer, said to be the most dangerous position possible. Seth had never believed it, because he believed his mother would live forever. She would come home, her red tunic freshly pressed, and look so magnificent he could hardly breathe, he was so proud of her. He didn’t care about the Klingons and their warrior tradition. As far as he was concerned, nothing could threaten his mother, until the day the Starfleet serviceman came to their door, carrying with him the flag of the Federation, and his mother’s red tunic, both of them so neatly folded, so innocuous, he couldn’t believe what the serviceman was saying, even though his brother and his father began to cry immediately. It was strange to see his father cry, but all the more to see Driver so vulnerable. He was older than Seth, and usually conducted himself with as much strength as he could muster. That day he looked shattered.
“My brother is a dangerous man,” he told Talbot. “He’ll stop at nothing to accomplish his goal.”
“Weapons have been forbidden here in Paradise City,” Talbot assured him. Seth had given him some medicine to counteract everything he had imbibed. The effect was enough so that Talbot could walk nearly in a straight line, with or without support. Seth preferred to hedge his bets. “This is a place of peace.”
“I’m sure it is,” Seth said.
“I’m sure you’re aware of how it was established,” Talbot said, after they had been walking a bit. The dry night air had a sobering effect, which Talbot had already bemoaned loudly. He’d told Seth all about the wretched conditions of the planet, which terraformers had attempted to alter, to limited success. It was enough to make Nimbus III habitable, but only just. Very little thrived here, except despair. “The vain hope of three cultures. You can see for yourself what it has accomplished. Everywhere, including here, the drumbeats of war sound still. We have the advantage of cynicism. Here we can agree to disagree with some civility, over poor drink and worse company, and agree on all of it. I’m sorry, I’m not sure if I was contradicting myself just then.”
“That’s okay,” Seth said. “I think I’m beginning to understand.”
“You understand nothing,” Talbot said. “You haven’t met your first Romulan. They have standards for this sort of thing. So do the Klingons. You can find both, if you know where to look. I suppose I can serve as your guide.”
“I don’t suppose you know where my brother is?”
“Never heard of him, “said Talbot. “Until now. Sounds like trouble. Lovely.”
Seth couldn’t tell if they were headed anywhere in particular. He was still surprised that this common drunk was the man who was supposed to lead him to his brother. Everyone on Earth had heard of St. John Talbot, who was supposed to have done more than any human to advance the cause of peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, including the establishment of this very colony, achievements so incomprehensible to some that taken to lauding him with great honors, such as his canonization within a sect of religious belief Seth hadn’t heard of until he did the research. To him, all it granted Talbot was a fancy title. That was his impression now, anyway. Slowly, he was losing his illusions.
“I’m beginning to doubt there are any to find,” he said.
“Who?” Talbot slurred.
“Romulans,” Seth said. “Klingons.”
“They're here,” Talbot said. “Believe me. We’ve had trouble retaining a Romulan delegate. They’re always being recalled back to the home world, and their replacements prove less and less experienced. Soon I expect them to start sending mere initiates from their diplomatic corps. They pretend to such austerity. Did you know they’ve been negotiating peace with the Klingons longer than we have? What has it gotten them? Worse relations, bad investments, unequal exchanges in technology. They never learn, and are perfectly content in their ignorance. The only thing they took from their Vulcan ancestors was ego. Say what you want about Korrd, but at least he brings a certain dignified history with him.”
Talbot must have noticed the face Seth made, because he quickly backtracked. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. You know, they teach his tactics at Starfleet Academy.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Seth said.
“You’re not going to last long here with such thin skin,” Talbot said. “Or you’ll be cursed to rely on crutches, as I have. Before here, believe it or not, I never drank. I believed in abstinence, as much as anything else.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Seth said, not particularly sounding as if he meant it. “Are we going to do anything besides talk, or am I wasting my time?”
“The wise man never wastes his time,” Talbot said, clearing his throat.
“I’m not looking for wise men,” Seth said. “I’m looking for my brother.”
“So you said. And you came looking for me to help you.”
“Seeing you now,” Seth said, “I’m sure I was mistaken.”
“Looks can be deceiving,” Talbot said. “We have peace here on Nimbus III, nominally. It hasn’t helped anyone, as you may have noticed. Do you want to know what I think?”
“Not particularly,” Seth said.
“I think we were so busy admiring ourselves,” Talbot said, “basking in the glow of humanity’s hard-won peace, we forgot what it took to achieve it. We forgot that we had made ourselves better. In short, we’re not as evolved as we like to think. You look at me and see a degenerate. You can’t even see the man you heard so much about. You can’t imagine how I was ever anything but what you see now. What does that tell you? What’s the lesson to be learned?”
“That looks can be deceiving,” Seth said with not a little sarcasm in his voice.
“Clever boy,” Talbot said. Clearly he had sobered up by this point, and he was looking at Seth shrewdly. They stood outside the gates of the city, the harshness of the landscape beyond its walls reminding them both how alone they really were in the universe. “You see the Klingons exactly as you always have, as the enemy, as the vicious animals responsible for the death of your mother, as the ones responsible for spoiling the Federation’s bid for galactic harmony. Forget all our other problems. They’re the aliens who won’t stop getting in our way. We explore worlds beyond imagination, and time and time again, the Klingons have already been there, or quickly show up behind us, offering the natives an alternative, a choice. Who wants such complication? We bring nothing but glad tidings, and the Klingons nothing but strife and conflict. Tell me, do you know anything of Klingon culture? Do you know what it sounds like when a warrior dies? And while you’re mulling these delicate matters, ask yourself one more question: What does your brother know of any of it?”
“You’re wasting my time,” Seth said. He pushed past Talbot and began to reenter the city, but the older man stopped him. “Get out of my way,” he warned.
“Or what?” Talbot said. “You’ll hit me? My, have we firmly established our differences from the Klingons!”
“What is it that you’re trying to accomplish?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” Talbot said. “You wanted me to help you find your brother. That is something I am prepared to do. I know where Korrd is. He’s out there somewhere, testing himself. Even as a shallow shell of himself, there is a semblance of himself that he tries to maintain. That’s what we all do. You wanted me as your guide? I make myself available to you. But I can’t help you if you’re determined to be so obstinate.”
“I’m shaken, is all. You’re not what I expected.”
“I expected nothing, personally,” Talbot said. “Where I’m concerned, that makes the scales balanced. You said your brother is the opposite of you in temperament. Because we have forbade weapons does not mean we don’t possess the implements to fashion them. Until now, despite our poor conditions, I had not expected sufficient motivation. Now it seems there is some. Where you blunder ahead emotionally, I would therefore expect him to move about with more deliberation. Where you fail to find Romulans, I’m certain he has succeeded. Therefore, to find your brother, I will help you find Romulans.”
“It would help if anyone here were predictable,” Seth said.
“I believe the term you’re searching for is civilized,” Talbot said. “You wouldn’t like where we hold our meetings, and at any rate that’s not where we’ll find them.”
They set off in a new direction. Seth was lost immediately. He hadn’t studied the maps of Paradise City at all before arriving. Before he knew it, they had come to a kind of public bath house. Here at last were Romulans. He’d never seen a Romulan before, either. Because he knew Vulcans well enough, he could at least identify them. It seemed odd to him that no one in the Federation would have been able to spot one less than a generation ago, even though it was Romulans, and not the Klingons, who had waged war against it a century earlier. They were dressed stiffly, formally, as if the old notions of pomp and circumstance ruled their culture, and they stood just as stiffly, conversing, about what he couldn’t begin to say. There were enough of them about. He felt uncomfortable, and for the first time was grateful for Talbot’s presence. The older man seemed unruffled. He might simply have been fighting the effects of a hangover.
Talbot walked up to one casually. Seth supposed she was the council representative. She had the same hairstyle as the men, but was alone in more elegant dress, almost provocative, if he could bring himself to describe her that way, the material clinging to her in ways the militaristic garb didn’t on her colleagues. Talbot made his way back to him, and as if having eavesdropped on his thoughts, observed, “Fascinating creatures. You know, their women have more freedom of fashion. Some of them, a depressingly increasing amount, maintain the tradition Romulan styles, whereas others live a little. It’s the degenerate human touch, they say, perhaps the only real influence our little playground here has managed to provoke. Then again, I know little more than you do about such things. Listen to me, prattling on.
“I’ve asked my friend if she knows about your brother,” Talbot said. “She let slip a knowing smile. They were probably sleeping together last night. As it happens, he’s inside the bath house now. You know, I’ve been meaning to visit one of these for a while. It’s horrible for alcoholics, of course. Must be how they stand their vaunted ale. I never touch the stuff. Well, almost never.”
“Seems to be a contradiction,” Seth said, hoping to mask his nerves. “A bath house on a desert world.”
“Or it makes perfect sense,” Talbot said. “Depends how you approach it. Let’s go, then.”
The Romulans parted around them. Seth almost wanted to engage one in conversation. Inside, he spotted his brother immediately. Driver tried to slip something into his tunic, which was in the Romulan fashion for some reason, but he knew he’d been caught in the act.
“Brother!” he roared as they embraced.
“Sounds like a Klingon,” Talbot muttered to himself. Neither brother noticed.
“You had me worried,” Seth said.
“Takes very little to accomplish that, my brother,” Driver said.
“Let’s take this elsewhere,” Talbot said. “I hate to sweat more than I need to, and besides, we should leave the bath houses to the Romulans.”
“I was just leaving anyway,” Driver said.
“I’m sure you were,” Talbot said. He left the rest of his observation to himself. Seth seemed to have forgotten the urgency of his quest.
When they had left the Romulans behind them, Driver became animated again. He couldn’t stop praising his brother for having traveled to Nimbus III. Apparently it was the first time Seth had left Earth. To see them together, Talbot didn’t see the tragedy that loomed over both their lives, but rather, two grown men who shared a deep affection for one another, whatever differences might exist between them apparently easily forgotten.
That made it all the more shocking when Driver nailed his brother with a cheap shot, driving his fist into Seth’s face with lightning speed and letting loose a horrifying cackle. The blow knocked Seth to the ground, and he sat in the dry land with a stunned look on his face, until Driver bent down and delivered more punches, a wild man inexplicably unleashed. Talbot didn’t know what to do. Finally, he reached out toward Driver, and laced his arms awkwardly over the flailing limbs, and dragged the larger man away.
“You need to stop this,” he said, hoping it sounded less weak than he felt in that moment. He had always been a man of peace. There had been times when he had felt a coward. He prayed that this wasn’t one of them.
“It doesn’t matter!” Driver shouted. “This doesn’t change anything! I’m glad you came here to see this, brother, but I’m only doing what I should have done a long time ago.”
Talbot didn’t know if he was talking about what he intended to do to Korrd, or what he had just done. He didn’t intend to push his luck. He released Driver from his tenuous grasp and backed away, toward the fallen Seth, reaching down to help him up. Seth’s lip was bleeding, and he appeared ready to cry. Neither had seen that coming.
“You won’t stop me,” Driver reiterated, scowling. “I’m ashamed of you. Until this moment, I didn’t want to believe it would come to this. I thought you would see reason. I thought you would understand. Instead, you come here and think you’re going to stop me? I don’t think so. But you were always weak. You’re everything that’s wrong with the universe. You’re just like the rest of them. That’s why the Klingons have been able to run roughshod over us. They take everything they want. Well, not anymore. It’s time someone shows them their place. It starts right here. When I’m done, the whole Klingon Empire will know my name, and they’ll come here looking for payback. I won’t be alone. I’ve just made a deal that will end this once and for all. Too bad you won’t be a part of it.”
With that, he stalked off, leaving Talbot to try and pick up the pieces. Seth sat stunned, licking his wounds. When he looked like he wanted to pursue his brother, Talbot cautioned him away from such a plan. “Not now,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. He must have misunderstood the Romulans. They would never support such a rash course of action. It’s suicide, and it would lead inevitably to war. That’s not the Romulan way.”
“Whatever else it is,” Seth said, “Driver believes what he’s saying. Even if he has only one Romulan on his side, you can bet he’s convinced others to rally to his side. He’s right. I should have seen this coming. I can’t believe how stupid I’ve been.”
“You’re probably right about his allies,” Talbot said. “But you’re wrong about the rest of it. You’re no fool. An idealist always faces impossible odds. I would know. I’ve had to live with the consequences of my dreams here on Nimbus III. As you’ve discovered, there’s no escape. They call this paradise. In my experience, paradise is a wasteland. It doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion, a mirage, projected by a collective flight of fancy on this desert world. The moment I came here, and see what we’d built, I knew I’d made a mistake. I was the fool, Seth, not you. The only colonists we’ve attracted here are the scum of the universe. There’s no peace here.”
Seth walked around a little, to help clear his head, holding a handkerchief against his lip. “The Romulans gave him one thing for sure,” he said. “You said there were no weapons here. Driver now has what he needs to make them. I never really gave Romulans much thought. Now I don’t think I like them.”
“They’re harmless,” Talbot said. “They’re all talk. After the war, they realized humans, who at that point had less experience and worse technology, could beat them. Somehow we’re always finding new ways to win these fights. First it was gunpowder, then it was the atomic bomb, and now it’s photon torpedoes. What’s next? Give one of us the tools to create a simple phaser, and we’re talking war all over again. I tell you, Seth, I’m rapidly losing faith in humanity. We say we’ve embraced the better parts of our nature, and where has it brought us? Face to face with our enemy. There is always another enemy. What does that tell you?”
“Right now,” Seth said, “it tells me we have to pay another visit to the bath houses. My brother has a weapon. We need one, too.”
“The cycle continues,” Talbot said. “It never ends. I need a drink.”
“Not right now,” Seth said. “We have an opportunity. You know where Korrd is. I’d like to believe my brother doesn’t. That gives us an advantage.”
“What can it possibly matter?”
“Listen,” Seth said. “I don’t know why you were made a saint, but somehow you earned it. That makes you a better man than me. No one will ever look at my family now and think we’re holy men. I see that now. I have it within me to fight dirty, just like my brother. Maybe that’s what this is about, not why we fight, but because when we have to, we will. The difference is motivation. Maybe my brother isn’t being such a good human right now, but that doesn’t mean he gets to dictate what it means to be human, any more than if I pick up a weapon to confront him, that all humans are irredeemable. I mean, we’re not Klingons.”
“Listen to yourself,” Talbot said. “The arrogance. What makes us any different? You’ve never met a Klingon. What do you even know about them?”
“Does it matter?”
“Of course it does,” Talbot said. “I introduced them to Shakespeare. I’ve read their translation of Hamlet. They take great pride in it now, you know. No human has embraced Klingon culture like that. In a hundred years of contact, no less. I think that’s sad. I can tell you what Romulan ale tastes like. I’ve made an art of drinking the stuff. But I’ve never tasted blood wine. They say it’s too potent for humans. I remember hearing about a Starfleet captain who stood trial in a Klingon court. He returned with the kind of talk of madmen. He was considered a great man, a founder of the Federation, and yet no one listened to what he had to say about Klingons. He said they weren’t all warriors. Even now you would be hard-pressed to find a human who believes otherwise. We talk about exploring ‘strange new worlds,’ all of that. But it’s just talk. Science fiction. We’re the same as we always were.”
Seth threw up his hands. Talking with St. John Talbot was exhausting. “Okay,” he said. “Fine. I don’t know the first thing about Klingons. You can bet my brother doesn’t either. That’s the point about all of this, isn’t it?”
“Driver is more like a Klingon than he could possibly realize,” Talbot said. “I’d wager that he knows it, too, and more, that he’s studied them a great deal more than you have. He might be able to find Korrd all on his own. We’re wasting valuable time philosophizing.”
“No,” Seth said. “It’s helping. I’ve never thought about any of this so much. I’m truly humbled. It used to be so simple, so black and white.”
“Nothing is so simple as ignorance,” Talbot said.
“Let’s go see the Romulans,” Seth suggested. Talbot offered no further protest. They found the scene at the bath houses exactly as it had been their last visit. Once again Talbot approached his colleague privately, and Seth stood aside, consumed by thought. He didn’t notice when Talbot received a small package and snuck it into his robes. The longer they lingered, the more frustrated he became, especially as he saw a steady stream of humans walking past in the distance. He didn’t think he could see his brother, but he couldn’t be sure. He could hear the soft purring of Tribbles in the vicinity. When he was a boy, he’d badly wanted one as a pet, but his mother refused, insisting he’d understand why in the future. When he learned what made them so disagreeable, he made a point to send her a message of thanks. He wondered now if the little beasts weren’t a little like humans. He’d never had such a thought before. He pushed it aside. He wasn’t ready to give up yet.
Talbot walked back up to him, and produced the package from his robes. “It would be best not to show this in public,” he warned.
“What makes the Romulans so special?” Seth asked.
“How do you mean?”
“If you know that they have the materials for such things,” Seth said, “why let them hold onto it?”
“Everyone has their hobbies,” Talbot said. “We’re not tyrants here. Besides, you can’t maintain order without a few compromises. There is such a thing as necessary evil. I believe that summarizes the Romulans perfectly. You just saw how useful they can be.”
“Like a scorpion,” Seth said.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” Seth said.
“You mentioned scorpions,” Talbot said. “I’m a hopeless alcoholic, I’m not deaf. I’m familiar with the fable. They are inherently unpredictable. All things being equal, that means that most of the time, they are in fact entirely predictable. As you’ve so delicately pointed out, there are worse things to fear.”
“They’ll arm both sides,” Seth said. “I thought that was a Klingon trick.”
“And a Starfleet one,” Talbot said. “We live in interesting times.”
“Isn’t that an old Chinese curse?”
“I believe so,” Talbot said. “You say you’re benefiting from our conversations. I believe I’m beginning to as well. You’re an interesting man, Seth. I’m glad we’ve met, despite the circumstances. Let’s be on our way.”
“Where to next?”
“To Korrd,” Talbot said. “If I’m right, your brother will be able to discern his location as well. He’s had enough time now. He also has a numerical advantage, as I’m sure you noticed. There may yet be time for another drink.”
“I don’t think so,” Seth said.
“It was worth a try,” Talbot said. “It’s just as well. I always like to be sober when I’m shot at. It sharpens the senses.”
They had crossed a considerable expanse of dry land. At one point they were threatened by a bald man, although he was too feeble to cause any real alarm. He seemed to be farming the dust, for what neither of them had a clue. Seth felt sorry for him. Like everyone, he was no doubt looking for something to believe in. Perhaps one day he’d find it. If he wasn’t so lucky, it’d find him first.
In the distance, they saw Driver and a mass of humanity. Only Seth’s brother was armed with a real weapon, but most of the others brandished staffs and torches, like a real mob. In front of them stood Korrd, who like Talbot had been when Seth found him, was hopelessly drunk. There were remnants of a ritual of some kind strewn about, but Seth couldn’t even begin to interpret what it might have been. Another thing Talbot had been right about.
Talbot was the first to speak. “Stop right there,” he shouted toward the crowd. He was unarmed, but had found his courage at last.
“I didn’t expect to see you again so soon,” Driver replied.
“And miss all of the fun?” Seth said, pointing the phaser rifle he had cobbled together at his brother, who returned the gesture. Neither flinched for so much as an instant. Korrd blinked with no real comprehension for what was developing around him.
“Tell your men to leave,” Talbot said. “There’s no reason for this to escalate. You’ve found your prey. You don’t need them. Your enemy won’t be intimidated.”
Korrd seemed to swell at the words, as if he could sober himself with a conscious thought. Driver’s men looked toward him and then their leader, but never at Seth or Talbot. They knew where the real danger lay.
Driver considered his options. “You won’t shoot me,” he said. “How could you?”
“Don’t test me,” Seth said.
Driver fired his rifle, aimed at a Klingon trinket that instantly exploded. Seth returned this gesture by disintegrating the staff of the man standing closest to his brother. Driver turned in utter astonishment.
“What else needs to happen?” Talbot said. “Tell them to leave. This doesn’t concern them.”
“The Klingon stays,” Driver says.”
“That stands to reason,” Talbot said.
Driver hesitated for another moment, and then told his men to stand down. When he saw that Talbot didn’t think that was good enough, he told them to disperse. They did so reluctantly, but in a few minutes, it was just Talbot, Korrd, and the two brothers, once again aiming their rifles at each other. All around them, the harsh landscape of Nimbus III loomed, and the growing darkness shone a thousand stars over the whole scene. Klingons lamps provided minimal illumination. Korrd began to pace.
“You haven’t proven anything,” Driver said. “I didn’t need an audience.”
“Of course not,” Talbot said.
“I’m surprised at you,” Korrd said, addressing Talbot. “I thought you had more honor than this.”
“And I thought you were put out to pasture,” Talbot replied. “No longer any use to the Empire. This was a humiliating assignment for you, wasn’t it?”
“Stop that,” Driver said. “I know what you’re trying to do.”
“Do you now,” Talbot said.
“I am going to shoot him,” Driver said. “He is going to die.”
“Yes,” Talbot said. “You will have your revenge, and you will have provoked a war, and finally, humans will be free of Klingons. What about the Romulans? The Cardassians? The Breen? Or all the other evil little alien civilizations out there you have not even had the privilege to have despised yet?”
“You think you’re so clever,” Driver said.
“No, I think I’m a fool,” Talbot said. “But I’m not the one pointing a weapon at a defenseless man.”
“Watch your language,” Korrd said, “you spineless pa’Tach.”
“And now we know what everyone really feels about each other,” Talbot said. “Really, Korrd, I’m wounded. I thought we worked together so well. I thought we were friends.”
“Let me tell you something about your friend,” Korrd said. “Let me tell you, rather, a story. It begins simply enough. A young boy loses his parent. He vows a blood oath. He becomes a warrior.”
“You know nothing about me,” Driver said.
“I’m not talking about you,” Korrd said. He spat on the ground for emphasis. “Long ago, I believed in the Empire. I rose all the way to the rank of general. Songs were sung about me in the Great Hall. I won many victories in glorious battle. Do you know what happened next? I fell in love. I admit, I never saw it coming. She captured my heart as swiftly I had territory in countless campaigns. I had never met anyone like her. I had not had an easy life. I had never expected good things to happen to me. I had a hardened heart, forged in the hottest flames. I had closed myself off from love. And yet none of that mattered, from the moment I met her. She changed me completely, or so I believed. I was happy, truly happy for the first time in my life. We wed, and we started making a new life together. But I made a mistake. I didn’t resign my commission. I kept my rank, and my duties, in the grand army of the Empire. I was a soldier; what else would I have done? I started going on campaigns again, and slowly, things began to change. This time, it was not for the better. It was not that she grew bitter, or resentful. She knew what it meant to be a Klingon just as well as I did. The problem was in me. Battle did not feel the same now. Now I had something to lose. I remembered what it was to be that young boy again. In time, I realized I could no longer be the man she had married. In shame, I left her. And in time, she left me, too. The great love of my life was over. I was still a warrior, but I had fallen into disgrace. My services were no longer wanted. I was sent here. And I can no longer go back. How do you like my story?”
“What is this?” Driver said. “Are you trying to trick me?”
“He’s talking to you, I think,” Korrd said, still addressing Talbot.
“No, you stupid animal, I’m talking to you,” Driver said, addressing Korrd.
“Watch your tongue, human,” Korrd said. His poise had continued to shift. Seth had no doubt he was as deadly unarmed as anyone holding a rifle, especially among present company, no matter how fat and out of shape as he appeared to be. He maintained his grip on the weapon, but he found that he was beginning to pity his brother.
“You’re trying to confuse me,” Driver said, “make me question myself.”
“I don’t care a wit about you,” Korrd said. “It’s my colleague who concerns me. You told him where I was?”
“The stench carried far into the city,” Talbot said. “You should bathe more often.”
“You’ve seen the bath houses,” Korrd said. “Inhospitable. Bad company.”
“That’s what got us into this mess,” Talbot said.
“Romulans and their obsessive hygiene,” Korrd said. “No wonder they lost the war with you. Too busy preening themselves.”
“I’m warning you,” Driver said.
“You’re in no position to threaten me,” Korrd said.
“You have no idea what you’re even talking about,” Driver said. “You’re not even smart enough to know when your life is in danger. And we’re supposed to fear you?”
“You know,” Korrd said, “most of the time we use intimidation from sheer numbers. You had the right idea when you came here, I think. I warn you now to stop insulting me. What’s most insulting is that you’re not even being particularly creative about it.”
“I don’t know why I’m even listening to you,” Driver said. Clearly the situation had begun to get to him. His voice betrayed signs of stress. Seth may not have known everything his brother had been up to in the last few years, but he doubted Driver had become cold-blooded, much less a killer. He could remember more innocent times quite clearly. He wished he could talk to that version of his brother. He wondered now if there would ever be such an opportunity again. He couldn’t believe now that he’d forgotten what his brother was really like, despite everything. Hot-headed, yes, but they weren’t really that different after all. This is what allowed him to continue pointing the rifle. It shook in his hands now, he hoped imperceptibly. He wanted this situation to end, but he couldn’t bring himself to address Driver. He didn’t trust himself.
Talbot continued to speak for him. “This is your opportunity to walk away,” he said. “No one needs to get hurt. You’ve proven your point already. I’m sure Korrd is impressed by you. Aren’t you, Korrd?”
The Klingon only grunted, which could be interpreted any number of ways. Driver didn’t do so favorably, which increased the tension. He raised the rifle so that it pointed directly at Korrd’s heart, or at least, where he obviously assumed it was, where it was in a human, anyway.
“You slaughtered my mother,” Driver said. Seth knew his brother well enough so that he could detect the cracks appear in his voice. As he had been earlier, Seth thought his brother was about to cry.
“Just to be clear,” Korrd said, “are you saying I killed her directly, or as a matter of a leader’s responsibility?”
It was the wrong thing to say. Driver fired his rifle a second time, but he must have been nervous, because the shot went wild, striking into the rocky soil harmlessly, but it provoked Korrd to action. Faster than he had any right to move, and because Driver had foolishly been standing too close to his target, he grabbed the rifle, and within a heartbeat, another shot had blazed in the cool night air. Driver’s lifeless body collapsed to the ground. Seth screamed aloud, and then found himself falling, too.
He looked up with bleary eyes to see Talbot kneeling down toward him, casually picking the rifle from his clutched hands and tossing it aside. “We won’t be needing that anymore,” he said, as kindly as he could. Seth searched for the Klingon, but he was nowhere to be seen. They were alone once again.
The funeral was a quiet affair. Notably, a few Romulans attended, out of respect or guilt Seth couldn’t say. Talbot himself presided. Seth hadn’t been to one since he was a child. He felt awkward during it, like he somehow didn’t have the right to be there. He hadn’t told his father yet, but he doubt the old man would have wanted to travel to Nimbus III anyway. No one did, unless they were desperate enough. That was the whole point, wasn’t it, the first lesson to be learned from the sorry affair? Korrd stood somewhere in the back, or so Talbot reported afterward, because Seth couldn’t bring himself to look at the Klingon again, not because he hated him, or felt sorry for him, but because he wouldn’t have known what to say to him.
“I trust you now know what it is to be a resident of Paradise City,” Talbot said to him at the small reception that followed. They were once again in the establishment where Seth had first met Talbot. Neither of them were in a drinking mood.
“I think I understand only too well,” Seth said. He watched as the feline woman danced. She was pretty good, as long as you didn’t stomp her tail. The customers here were depressingly slow to catch on to such civilities.
“Where will you go now?”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” Seth said. “The possibilities have either grown, or they’ve shrank. I can’t decide.”
They sat in silence. A Romulan entered, wearing a hood. As Seth realized now, nearly everyone here wore hoods, as if they were all attempting to hide in plain sight, ashamed of themselves, perhaps, or their surroundings. Maybe both. He watched as the Romulan pulled off his hood, revealing blond hair. Seth had no idea how that might have happened. As far as he knew, all Romulans, like Vulcans, had jet black hair.
“I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I couldn’t shoot my own brother. I wasn’t strong enough to save him.”
“We’re all cowards here on Nimbus III,” Talbot said. “That’s why we’re here. No shot at redemption. We’re the dregs of the galaxy.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Seth said. “You’ve done a great thing here. I’m sorry I didn’t notice before. Sometimes it just takes time for anyone to notice. I remember some of the old legends, one particularly about the phoenix. It was a great bird. Burst into flames, died spectacularly. But then it was reborn from its own ashes. They say it has magical properties besides, can heal anything with its tears, or something like that. My problem is that I read too much, know too much trivial nonsense like that. The real world didn’t really exist for me, before.”
“This isn’t the real world,” Talbot said, gesturing around him. “This is fantasy.”
“Maybe,” Seth said. “But it’s your home. If anyone can make this work, it’s you. You know, I can’t bring myself to hate him.”
“Korrd,” Talbot guessed.
“I didn’t hate him before, either,” Seth said. “I could never understand my brother in that regard. Sometimes tragedy changes us. I look at Korrd and I don’t see a beaten man. I know we all heard his story. He wasn’t looking for pity, but clearly he thinks he’s broken, worthless. I don’t see him that way. In a strange sort of way, I’m proud of him. He was responsible for the death of our mother, but it wasn’t personal. We aren’t at war. We never were. She died in a trap set by the natives of a planet that didn’t belong to the Federation or the Klingons. We didn’t even know the Klingons would be there. That’s the sad truth. I don’t know if the natives set the trap because of the Klingons, or if it just happened to be there. We went there at all because we were afraid the Klingons would get there first. I don’t blame us, either. I don’t know if you’re aware, but there are plenty of humans who are just as quick to blame ourselves as the Klingons. It’s just so senseless. The way I hear it, her starship had been looking for Korrd for weeks. She did her duty. She died in the line of duty.”
Talbot ordered a bottle of blood wine. The bartender seemed surprised, but he promptly brought one to their table, along with two glasses. It was thick and red. As Talbot poured it, Seth wondered if it really was blood.
“No,” Talbot said. “I will be here for a long, long time. It’s best that I get used to it. You have your life ahead of you. Don’t worry about me.”
“It’s not you I’m worried about,” Seth said, eying his glass. “Klingon Shakespeare, you say? Whatever made you think of that?”
“Everyone dies in Shakespeare,” Talbot said. “It seemed appropriate.”
“To death,” Seth said, raising his glass.
“To life,” Talbot said, raising his.
“The continuing mission,” Seth added. “May you live in interesting times.”
“The curse again,” Talbot said.
“I’ve come to think of it as more of a blessing,” Seth said. He downed his glass as quickly as he could. It scorched his throat considerably. Talbot finished soon after. He looked right at home. Seth got up and patted Talbot on the back. There was nothing left to say. There was a transport humming in the atmosphere, perhaps the Andorian returning. His arrival seemed like such a long time ago now, a lifetime. He wondered if Talbot really would be okay. He was more worried about him than Korrd. For Seth, this had been a watershed experience. For Talbot?
It’s never easy being a saint.